Willis’ image of the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) was photographed in Skomer Island, off the coast of Southwest Wales. It was the height of nesting activities then, and the 12,500 breeding pairs were nesting in burrows excavated all over this small island of 2×3 km. In addition, there were about a quarter million Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) competing for space to excavate their breeding burrows. To add to the confusion were numerous guillemot, razorbill, curlews and gulls.
With the puffin eggs hatching around that time, the adults were extremely busy hunting for sandeels in the surrounding ocean to feed their hungry chicks. Also known as sand eel, this fish of the family Ammodytidae is not related to the true eels.
The chicks are fed exclusively on fish, although the adults feed also on small crustaceans, marine worms, and squids. The distinctive and brightly coloured bill of the puffin is well adapted to securely carry back as many as a dozen small fish at any one time to its chicks. As soon the first fish is caught, it is wedged far back between ridges in the roof of the upper mandible. The backward pointing spines in the palate of the upper mandible holds it in place as it opens its bill to catch another and another.
“They bring the food back with great sense of urgency as the gulls are ever present to harass and steal the food,” wrote Willis. “On normal flight they’re one of the fastest flyers I’ve encountered and with sandeels, the pace was even faster… due to the high speed, their landing is pretty clumsy but the moment they hit the ground they will go into the burrow in less than 2 seconds.”
This post is a cooperative effort between NaturePixels.org and BESG to bring the study of bird behaviour through photography to a wider audience.